Today, 're-invent or perish' is a credo for some California winemakers to live by. The hard-driving belief held by these winemakers is that, if you don't stay on top of your game, a fickle wine-buying public will look to someone else for new and exciting taste experiences. Over the last four decades, Richard Arrowood has shown his ability to adapt and advance, maintaining the Arrowood name as both an indicator and brand of quality winemaking.
When I first met Arrowood in the late 1970s, he was already on top of his game as winemaker for Chateau St. Jean, a new winery in the relatively unknown Sonoma Valley. St. Jean Chardonnay from the Robert Young Vineyard and a string of late-harvest Rieslings were the talk of the business, at a time when California wine was riding the crest of a popularity wave for Napa Valley red wines. Fresh from serving as a winemaking acolyte to Sonoma icon, Rodney Strong, Arrowood was among the first to personify a uniquely California wine phenomenon, the cult of the winemaker. 'Rod gave me the chance to develop an understanding of quality production at a turning point in my career,' recalls Arrowood.
Now well into his fourth decade of winemaking, Richard Arrowood's career-rise to prominence in California has had its ups and downs. For Arrowood, 1985 was a watershed year. While still at Ch. St. Jean, which was then owned by Suntory, Arrowood began making wine under his own label, married Alis Demers (who became his partner in life and business) and bought a 15-acre parcel in Sonoma Valley. Two years later, the Arrowoods opened Arrowood Vineyards & Winery. Their latest venture is Amapola Creek Winery, on a 72-acre parcel south of the Arrowood Winery, where Arrowood grows Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Syrah.
By 2000 the status of Arrowood Vineyards & Winery was about to change. 'We were bought by the Mondavis in 2000 which I believe was a very good move,' Arrowood recalls. Then, in 2004, Constellation took over Mondavi and the ride hit its first bump. 'Constellation didn't want to keep some of the small wineries in the deal, so they sold Arrowood and Byron to the Legacy Estates Group, and within nine months they filed for bankruptcy.' The result of the bankruptcy sale was Jackson Family Wines buying Arrowood, Byron and Freemark Abbey, a move that Arrowood says made a big difference. 'Jess Jackson shares my passion for excellence. He's a hands-off owner who allows me to run the winery with his support.'
For now, Arrowood divides his time between Arrowood winery and Amapola Creek, where he and partner Tom Smothers of Remick Ridge are developing 10 acres of organic vineyards to make about 3,000 cases of red wine.
Arrowood has never shied away from taking a position, controversial or not. 'I'm not a believer in man-made global warming, but I do believe that we have to be good stewards of the land and work to produce healthy grapes.' Not only is he up front about his views of global warming, but also the practice of biodynamics. 'Biodynamics is a little too strange for me, so we'll stay with organic grape growing at Amapola Creek.'
Richard Arrowood was born and raised in Santa Rosa, so settling and working in the Sonoma Valley was like moving next door. 'After school it made sense to me to come back to my hometown and besides in those days I didn't know much about the Napa Valley. His experience in Sonoma County has helped him form some strong opinions on what wines work best. 'I think Sonoma has a very good name for Zinfandel, while Chardonnay does well in the Russian River Valley and Carneros.' From Sonoma Valley, Arrowood is high on hillside Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, two red wines featured at both Arrowood and Amapola Creek.
Capitalizing on the diversity and complexity of Sonoma fruit, Arrowood strives to make singular wines with harmonious balance, not to follow the trend toward vineyard-designated wines for all his wines. He has long-term relationships with growers throughout the county that allow him to source Syrah and Viognier from the Russian River Valley, Chardonnay from Russian River and Carneros, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander and Sonoma Valleys, and Riesling (made in a late harvest style, a throw back to his St. Jean days) from Alexander and Russian River Valleys.
Concentrating on red wines that tend toward high alcohols, Arrowood is no apologist for his three Arrowood red wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah), all of which are above 15% alcohol. 'Physiological ripeness needs to be better defined. High Brix (a measurement of grape sugar) with green flavors means there is something wrong in the vineyard. If the flavors are pruny to raisiny, or even port-like, then the wine is not balanced.' Arrowod reds are bottled unfined and unfiltered.
As for the future of California wine, Arrowood says we need fewer suits and more 'real people' who are making the wines. 'After 9/11 there was a down-turn in the wine market. So, if we can get the economy back in balance then the future will be bright. We need to teach people that wine is an everyday beverage that brings out social graces and somehow make young people see and understand all the work it takes to make good wine without appearing as arrogant.'
Arrowood wines are available nationally, and full reviews of the currently released wines, plus a few older Cabernet Sauvignons, can be found in the WRO Wine Reviews page. Amapola Creek wines were not available for consideration, but will be reviewed on WRO in the future.